Mary Anne

 «I still remember where I was when I heard about the first Beirut Marathon. I was in my car in Gemayzeh. I was ecstatic to know that there would be such a race. I always participated in races in the U.S. and missed the experience in Lebanon. I love this race as it is one of the very few happy days in the country. It is one day that people from around the country and from all the different backgrounds go to the capital to participate in this amazing event. On this day, my hope for Lebanon is renewed, and my hope for a better country is renewed. Lastly, it’s a great fun race with fantastic energy. I love running on the Corniche in the weeks leading to the race as the number of runners training increases. This makes the Corniche buzz with energy and anticipation. It’s a wonderful feeling. I love see other runners out training. There is a mutual respect and camaraderie.»

Mary Anne came to Lebanon in 1994, with her daughter and her two boys. Joseph, and Eric are now at Stanford  in grad and undergrad schools respectively. Mary Anne’s daughter Lea is still in high school and will take part in the 5K race on November 8. Her mom is unfortunately not running, being a consultant for Beirut Marathon, this year. Apart from being a veteran triathlete, Mary Anne also organizes events in Lebanon, like the Batroun triathlon. Although she bikes and swims for the triathlon events, she still is happiest when she runs; only running gives her that ‘high’, and that the half marathon distance is her favorite: «It’s challenging, but doable and fun, and my body doesn’t need time to recover from this distance.»

I definitely love quoting Mary Anne, just as much as I love shooting her, especially when she’s running. I recently asked her what made Lebanon special, and she answered: «That’s a hard one. Lebanon is quite a unique place. It has a history of turmoil but like a resilient flower, dies and blooms again and again. I like its resilience; I like its contradiction. I also love its natural beauty and important and ancient cultures and civilizations. Lebanon has great potential but needs to be taken care of.» I’ll definitely be doing more photos of Mary Anne, every chance I get, whether she’s running or not.

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Bertrand

 

Past the kilometer 30 mark, running become quite impossible. That’s when most runners simply give up. The runners who do go on, usually repeat a runner’s mantra. In Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s case, for example, it is something that goes like this: pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. As he ran his first ever marathon in Beirut, in 2012, Bertrand kept repeating another phrase he had read of Murakami’s: ‘in a marathon, you don’t walk, you run!’, but Bertrand had other ideas and other leitmotifs racing through his mind; the thought of his two kids, and wife, waiting for him in their home on rue Gouraud, conveniently located not one kilometer from the finish line. Bertrand therefore kept repeating other mantras of the like: ‘I am going home.’

Bertrand is the chairman and general manager of family-owned business that deals with distribution, with several household and luxury brands which the company represents in Lebanon. The company happens to fund ‘Our Lady of Hope’ association, a charity NGO that sponsors students in private schools. Several runners will be taking part in Beirut marathon for the benefit of the foundation, including Bertrand and his wife. Apart from mentioning the foundation, Bertrand was keen on mentioning the CSR side of his family business, on which he had worked hard of late; one of his Masters degrees in Switzerland being in Corporate Social Responsibility, as it were. And Bertrand was indeed proud of the core mission statement he and his team arrived at for the company: ‘Change for Life’ against a photo of hands holding a patch of soil with a plant rising from it. Two hands holding soil from which a young plant is sprouting, I had seen that before, in a movie portraying a lawyer taking on a company called U-North that was definitely modeled after larger than life real multinationals. The lawyer was unwittingly crossing the street in New York on a red light and had some kind of awakening as cars raced towards him. 

As the story goes then 2012, the New York marathon was cancelled for the first time ever, and Bertrand did his first marathon ever in Beirut instead. There is no shortage of cars to cross paths with runners, here in Beirut. I wonder what would be the prevalence of near collisions creating various kinds of epiphanies for corporate people, though. Bertrand’s did prep school in France and applied for the concours of the Ecole Normale Superieure, in philosophy. I would like to believe that, had he got in, it would most definitely have been a life changing experience, just as I know that cheering the start in Zeituna bay, and then going up to Martyrs’ Square to see runners reaching the finish line, you are worlds apart. Hopefully this would not be the case for long, and we would get to call it home.

Sister Rita

  

The headlights of the endless procession of parents’ cars, coming up from the Petit College entrance to pick up their kids, added constantly moving sources of light to the first section of the Jamhour track. At 6:30 it was already night. I did have photos of Sister  Rita that I had taken on previous occasions; last of which during this year’s 10K Women’s Race in Byblos, but I knew I needed to take some more, and Sister Rita could only train at night. Sister Rita was in her third year at Notred Dame de Jamhour, teaching Catechism, all the while doing her Masters degree in school management, in all logic. 

As I waited by the track, several young runners greeted me, as they jogged by. Some were going to run in the Beirut Marathon for the benefit of the Melanie Freiha fund, their beloved schoolmate and friend who’d passed away earlier this year. They were all trained by the ultra-loved uber-coach Alice Keyrouz, who was known all over the land for finding the most childlike nicknames for all her runners, who seemed not to suffer all that much performance-wise by their adoptive denominations. Sister Rita started training with Alice for the 10K distance only last year, and she was making constant progress. I don’t suppose Alice gave her a nickname, but I wondered whether she had a runner’s mantra.

Being part of a religious order meant that she did not know where she’d be one year from now. Running is that one activity you can most anywhere, on top being a way of life in fact. Right before I drove up to Jamhour that evening, I was watching a restored version of  Kurosawa’s 1954 cult classic ‘The Seven Samurai’. In the movie, one of the ronins, hired to defend helpless villagers against outlaws plaging them, and training a group of villagers as it were, to defend themselves tells them: «In battle you’re always running; you run when you attack, and you run when you retreat. When you can’t run anymore, you die.» In his Timothy  St. Paul wrote:  

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Denise

  

What is it that makes a runner? Is it the training, and the physical conditioning? Surely that plays a big part. Or, Is it the individual differences, and genetics? This no one can deny, either; some were just born to run, like the Kalenji tribe. All this makes a runner able to run a long distance. What makes a runner, once all has been said and done, is his Will to finish the race. To reach that finish line, no matter what, and that takes more than training; it takes a bit of madness and a whole lot of stubbornness. 
Some fifteen years ago, Denise hadn’t done sports for a very long time; not since an unfortunate accident left her with only one of her eyes. It took a lifetime to muster up the courage to run again. Denise had been a loving wife, and a caring mother to three boys who are now grown up. But then, one day she meets a coach who doesn’t take no for an answer and doesn’t give up on her. We cannot truly change, unless someone comes into our life, and shows us another way. And so, Denise takes up all kinds of sports.  Then one day she decides to run a marathon. «You will never finish it!» her husband says to her; no doubt out of good intentions, wanting maybe to spare her the disappointment of having to quit in mid race. In retrospect, he should never have said that. 

Many people drop out 10 kilometers before the end. Denise saw that in every marathon she ran, and she still recalls how unbearably painful that first marathon in Beirut was. Her husband was indeed worried she might not finish, as he expected. Most runners her age category have been coming in for some time now, but there was still no sign of her. He goes up the track looking for her. After one kilometer he catches up with her. She can barely walk. She’s limping on one leg. «What did I tell you? Let me take you home now.» Denise looks at him and says: «You just go back where you came from, darling! I’ll see you on the other side of the finish line.» A few years later, and several international marathons down the road, Denise comes in first of her age category, at the 2012 Beirut Marathon. I took that photo of her as she was in her final kilometer of this year’s Women’s Race. And I do wager she’ll also be crossing that finish line in Martyr’s Square, come November 8 well. Denise has what it takes to be a runner.

Larissa

   

Larissa is not from around here. She is Lebanese, though, and has two beautiful boys, and her own medical practice in Barbir. She’s done a lot for her family, as a loving mom; for her patients, as a good physician; and for her country of adoption, as a productive member of Lebanese society. And yet, her special time of day is before hours, when most are still asleep, when it’s not yet dawn; that time of day when she comes to Horsh Beirut to run. Most runners usually wake up and run a bit later in the morning, but Larissa’s practice, and her family life impose a different regimen. Running alone wasn’t really choice for her, yet she still enjoys every second of it. 

Larissa runs at 5:30AM in the Pine Forest, five times a week. She doesn’t put headphones or listens to music; she’d rather hear all the sounds around her, to listen to her breathing, and “hear the grass popping” as she says. Now, that’s definitely poetry. I suppose we can find beauty in everything we do, but I do believe that when we run, we’re faced with the most basic act of our survival as a living, breathing being; the things we feel then, can give out something beyond just beauty and poetry that others cannot simply grasp from the comfort of their own sedentary existence. 

Larissa finally met other runners in Lebanon, and ran in a team. She admits the feeling was great. After her first half marathon she was «at an all time high for three consecutive days», she shared. Larissa took part in four Beirut marathon editions since then, and the feeling was just amazing: «Finishing a full marathon is an achievement all by itself, and that’s a personal achievement, to be sure, since you’re ultimately competing with yourself…» she said, «…but, I have to admit; overtaking younger runners is a small kind of accomplishment that I also look for, and enjoy» she added with a mischievous smile, after which she laughed. Beirut is not really Home for Larissa, and I don’t suppose it will ever be. Running however, be it alone or with others, makes us feel we have a second Home anywhere we go. Home is where the heart is, they say. That said, Runners can feel at home, pretty much everywhere, so long they run. 

Olivier

  
Olivier’s first marathon was an ultra. Back in 2008, in Paris, an ad for the Marathon des Sables caught his attention. He had never run in a long distance race before, not a half marathon, or a 10K, not even a 5K. Still Olivier felt he really needed to take part in a 242K race in the Sahara desert. He was 33. His wife was pregnant with their first daughter, they would name her Dhalia. Maybe Olivier felt that with parenthood upon them, now would be a good time to try something crazy; as he might no longer have the chance to try anything remotely resembling excruciating long distance races. He was wrong; not about the excruciating part, but about this type of race being his last. It was in fact just the opposite.

Since 2009, Olivier has been taking on big marathons, one after the other; New York, with as little a month’s training. It goes without saying that the excruciating part was along for the ride there as well. In 2010, came Paris and Berlin. Then Beirut marathon in 2011; Olivier and his family had already moved back to Lebanon a year prior. Olivier also managed to slip a Bourges-Sancerres 70K ultra, somewhere in there. And then in 2013, logic followed its course, and  triathlons started rolling in; lots of the Olympic distance triathlons, and last year Nice and its full Ironman where Olivier did a good time, and still had plenty of room for personal improvement, and personal bests. Next July, Olivier will be taking on the Challenge Roth, the most sought after triathlon ever, already booked out a year in advance. He’ll get close to that 10h mark he needs  to qualify for Kona, the dream destination for all triathletes. 

Olivier is part of the TriGang, a team of triathletes, based in Beirut, bent on invading all Ironman races in the guise of an ultra-cool barbarian horde, complete with its own visual indentity and rallying cry. Of late, cycling became Olivier’s favorite sport. Still Olivier keeps a special place in his heart for running, and that very first adventure of a race, in the Sahara night, with those green lasers on the horizon guiding him to the finish line, home, and his pregnant wife. Six years are not a long time, and yet Olivier has come such a long way since his first race, and for his daughter Dahlia, six years are simply a life time. She will be running along with her dad, her first 2K in Beirut Marathon, come November 8. It all started with running, and will do so again.

Walid

After I shot the start, against the morning Maasser el Chouf landscape, I hitched a ride in an army bus and we drove past the last runners. Most of runners start having doubts about reaching the end but then they would see Walid coming towards them, returning to run by their side the remainder of the course.

Once he reached the finish line, Walid turned round and went back out there, to catch up with his Beirut 542 team members still on the road. Again and again he would pace his teammates in their final mile. It was beautiful to watch. The final yards were around the corner, in the winding mountain road of Khraibeh, and you could see Walid point the way and let his teammate run the final yards on their own, as he went back for another teammate still out there.

In soccer, you run up and the down the field all the time. A favorite pastime for Walid, he used to do that in a past when he played with local soccer teams in Beirut. It wasn’t the same as running long distance though. In team sports, one team is pitted against another, and the goal is to beat that other team, and in a place like Lebanon, all the things that divide us rise up to the surface and people shout them out, unashamedly. At one point in his life, Walid no longer wished to hear those words. He went running all by himself in the dead of night. He would see the sunrise as he reached the white sand dunes of Ramlet el Baida.

Walid’s been running since the 90s, so when the BMA launched its very first marathon, it was a match made in heaven. Walid never missed a race, and went on to become a 542 team leader, training new marathon runners every year. This year is special though, with many races serving as training for November’s marathon.